Originally Published: Thursday, 5 October 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The 486 Follow-Up

Yes, even I can take a hint. When a linux.com article gets 57 comments in just five days, I assume the community has some interest in the topic.

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Yes, even I can take a hint. When a linux.com article gets 57 comments in just five days, I assume the community has some interest in the topic. Overall, the comments on my 486 article were enlightening. Not only did I learn that there is a large interest in the reuse of older computers, but I saw a number of good ideas on how to use Linux with these systems.

So, as a service to the readers, I'm writing this short follow-up. This article should address some points I missed in the original, and bring a few new ideas to light.

Distributions & Software

Installing a Linux distribution is a bit trickier on an older computer. Bootable CD-ROMs don't always work, so make sure you have boot floppies handy. For those who lack a CD-ROM drive, try network or floppy-based installations.

Please check the processor requirements for your distribution. Distros like Mandrake are optimized for Pentium-class processors, so they won't install on a 486 (although Mandrake does have a 486 version). Also, be careful when downloading software packages, since they are often optimized for i586 & i686 instruction sets. A good example of this is the Seti @ Home client.

X on the 486

I did neglect to discuss the use of a GUI on a 486 LINUX platform. With most GUI environments, processor speed is not the main performance enhancing factor. The smooth operation of a GUI requires two things: system memory and video memory. X really needs over 32 MB of system memory and 1 MB of video memory. It can work with less, but then the applications will have few resources to play with.

Linux is unique in that it allows dozens of window managers to work with X. Each one of these managers has distinct advantages and disadvantages. In general, more features require more memory and more processing power. Gnome and KDE are not ideal for the 486 platform, unless you're loaded with system memory and are very patient. Stick with lightweight window managers like fvwm and xfce which are designed to consume fewer system resources.

Extra Juice?

One comment did raise an interesting environmental question . . . how much are you saving the environment by running a second computer? The reader was worried if the extra electricity consumed (usually generated by burning fossil fuels) outweighed the problem of computers sitting in landfills.

In my opinion, using the older computer is a better option than throwing it away. Some things to consider: (1) Computers contain a lot of lead, so the local water table can be affected. (2) A 486 computer consumes less power than today's Intel and AMD machines. Look at the average Athlon/PIII desktop case . . . faster CPU, larger heatsink, bigger drives & larger capacity power supply. (3) Many of the router configurations for a 486 operate as "headless" machines; they don't require a monitor (which consumes a fair amount of power). (4) Power plants are more environmentally friendly than they used to be thanks to technology, thirty years of environmental protesting and multi-million dollar lawsuits.

There is the con of having yet another beige box in the house. This adds a few bucks to the power bill, and possibly another annoying set of whirring fans. If you have a good application for the computer, this minimal inconvenience can be outweighed by the function served by the computer.


I did neglect to include links in the original 486 article. For your convenience, they are listed below.

Coyote Linux (router/firewall) LINUX Router Project (LRP) (router/firewall) FreeSCO (router/firewall) FreeDOS (GPL DOS replacement) FreeBytes NP, Inc. (computer recycler) NewDeal (graphical DOS office suite - not GPL'ed) Arachne (graphical SVGAlib web browser)

Text-based internet software like lynx and w3m, along with most anything else that runs under Linux, can be obtained from Freshmeat.

Know Where You Came From

Knowledge of pre-Pentium systems is becoming a topic for front porch discussions of old network administrators. I wouldn't be surprised if this type of information ends up in the 2001 Farmer's Almanac.

Playing with an older computer is a good way to appreciate how far personal computing has come in twenty short years. Working with these bits of history is good for the soul, and helps users understand just how much their desktop computer can really do. Plus, NetHack really is a better game than Quake -- and it works over telnet!

Brian Richardson is weeks away from his new website, siliconchef.com! The heat will be on!

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